According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) occur every year in the United States – and that number is rising. Moreover, half of those diseases occur in people between the ages of 15 to 24.
A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is typically passed on during vaginal, oral or anal sex; some may be transmitted through kissing or touching. It’s also possible for a pregnant woman to pass the disease to her newborn baby (congenital infection), which can cause serious health issues for the child.
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Ronald Salzetti, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist (OB/GYN) at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo and chairman of the Department of OB/GYN at Scripps Clinic, about the most common STDs.
Chlamydia, a bacterial infection that affects the cells of the cervix, is one of the fastest-growing STDs with more than 1.8 million cases diagnosed each year.
“It really is a new epidemic that’s going on right now,” says Dr. Salzetti. “I’ve diagnosed more cases of chlamydia in the last couple of years than probably the ten years before that.”
Chlamydia has no symptoms in about 75 percent of women, which is why screenings are so important to detect the disease in its early stages. Women who do have symptoms may notice unusual vaginal discharge, itching or burning, or pain during sex. Men may have a clear or cloudy discharge from the penis, burning and itching at the tip of the penis, or pain during urination.
Minor infections are easily treated with antibiotics. Without treatment, chlamydia may cause severe abdominal pain, fever and chills, and require hospitalization. Advanced infections can cause pelvic inflammatory disease or pregnancy complications. Moreover, pregnant women can pass the infection to their babies, who may develop an eye infection or pneumonia.
Gonorrhea is another type of bacterial infection. Its early symptoms are very similar to chlamydia and may also include eye pain and discharge, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes in the neck and swollen, painful joints. Severe infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. Like chlamydia, gonorrhea can be passed to newborns and cause serious vision problems and infections.
Gonorrhea is treated with antibiotics. In some cases, treatment includes both an antibiotic injection and oral medication.
Syphilis is a bacterial STD that can spread through kissing as well as sexual activity. The disease develops in three stages:
Primary (early) syphilis causes small, tender lesions (sores) on the genitals or mouth between 10 to 90 days after exposure. Touching these sores also can spread the infection. The lesions heal even without treatment, but the person is still infected and contagious.
Secondary syphilis starts six weeks to six months after exposure. “Secondary syphilis symptoms involve general rash over the body that can look remarkably similar to measles, some flu-like symptoms,” says Dr. Salzetti. “That also will get better on its own without treatment, but the infection is still there. So, people could go years undiagnosed if they don’t get checked and treated with either of the first two stages.”
Tertiary syphilis affects the heart, brain and nerves and may cause dementia, paralysis, blindness, hearing loss and impotence. Without treatment, syphilis can be fatal.
Syphilis treatment usually involves one or more doses of antibiotics.
Unlike gonorrhea and chlamydia, which can pass to a baby during birth, syphilis can infect a baby before birth. Babies who contract congenital syphilis (passed from mother to baby during pregnancy) may be stillborn or die shortly after birth. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of babies that died shortly after birth due to congenital syphilis increased by 40 percent.
Herpes is a viral infection that can be passed through sexual activity or kissing. Genital herpes symptoms include itching, pain and tenderness in the genital area, along with small red bumps or white blisters. Oral herpes causes tingling or itching around the mouth, followed by fluid-filled blisters on the lips or under the nose that leak and form sores.
The herpes virus lives in the body and may flare up at any time. Stress and illness may trigger outbreaks. While there is no cure for herpes, anti-viral medications can help reduce the length and severity of outbreaks.
Fortunately, STDs can be prevented by taking steps to avoid spreading the infection.
“It’s all about vigilance,” says Dr. Salzetti. “It starts with safe sex practices. Make sure that if you have a new partner, you use condoms. Once a year at your annual exam, or any time you suspect you might have symptoms, ask your OB/GYN to screen for STDs. With any of these diseases, we can decrease bad outcomes if we get them diagnosed and taken care of.”